In a recent online chat, a fan asked ESPN’s Keith Law the following question and he gave the following answer:
Andy (Madison, WI): The Braves essentially chose Freeman over Heyward. Assuming that Heyward would have cost a bit more, is it the right decision for the Braves?
Klaw: No, they didn’t choose Freeman over Heyward, essentially or otherwise.
Freddie Freeman signed a eight-year, $135 million contract on Feb. 4th. Freeman will make $5.125 million in 2014, $8.5 million in 2015, and $12 million in 2016. These are his arbitration years. During his free agent years, his yearly salaries jump to $20.5 million in 2017, $21 million in 2018 and 2019, and $22 million in 2020 and 2021. The salary jump coincides with the move to the new Cobb County stadium, but the jump in yearly salaries is most likely due to that being the end of team control and when Freeman would have hit the open, free-agent market.
Before the Freeman deal, teams have gotten significant discounts (relative to the cost of performance on the open, free agent market) by signing their young players to long-term deals well before they hit free agency. Players should be making market value, not less, around the time they hit free agency for the first time. This is when players typically peak. If the Freeman deal is any indication, players and their agents are realizing players shouldn’t accept discounts in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs addresses all of this quite well here.
Freeman is coming off a year in which he was in the MVP discussion. This probably helped the Braves lock him up long-term. The Braves could approach it as Freeman selling high on himself and Freeman not needing to wait on himself to reach his potential. There was a baseline there favorable to Freeman in that it was a great season and favorable to the Braves in that it allowed them to lock up a very good player for a long time rather than risk him going to free agency.
Jason Heyward is a different story. While Heyward has been among the most valuable right fielders in the game since his call-up at the beginning of the 2010 season, it seems his potential is even greater and he’s yet to put it all together. As solid as Heyward has been, he has little to gain by signing a long-term deal similar to Freeman’s at this point. He has little to lose by waiting until he either a) has a break-out season or b) waiting until free agency to sign a long-term deal.
Of course the Braves front office realizes all this. They know to sign Heyward long-term, they would likely have to offer up a deal better than Freeman’s to make it worthwhile for him to pass up waiting on a break-out season or free agency. They aren’t going to offer up such an attractive deal without knowing whether Heyward is merely one of the best right fielders in the game or whether he’s closer to a perennial MVP candidate. The Braves know Heyward is likely going to get a contract similar to Freeman’s or better. But why offer him something better if they don’t have to?
So both sides are forced to wait to get a grasp of whether Heyward is a star or a superstar. One side isn’t to blame for not getting a deal done and the Braves aren’t choosing Freeman over Heyward. Freeman has clearly had what is likely his breakout. I’m not saying Freeman can’t get any better but it’s likely that he won’t get a whole lot better. It’s hard for any player to improve significantly on a season in which he’s in the MVP discussion, especially a player who has already seems to have surpassed expectations. Both sides, Freeman and the Braves, could properly valuate Freeman and had incentive to get a deal done. Odds are pretty high that Heyward hasn’t had his breakout yet, though there is that possibility that he doesn’t get a whole lot better, so it’s difficult for either side, Heyward or the Braves, to valuate what kind of contract Heyward deserves, relative to the market. Both sides have incentive to wait and see.